Despoiled democracy

An eye-witness account of the first days of Kenya's spiral to chaos.

women vote 224 (photo credit: AP)
women vote 224
(photo credit: AP)
The unpredictability of elections in Africa attracted my attention to Kenya, the country well known for its famous Masai Mara National Park and beautiful coast. Millions of tourists, among them many from Israel, find their way to Kenya each year, though the 2002 suicide attack on the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa gave the industry a major blow. The number of tourists was rising again and the economy had been growing steadily at around 6 percent annually. "Six percent growth. And still the people want to get rid of this president!" The taxi driver on Nairobi's Moi Avenue does not understand the supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga. It is Thursday, December 27, voting day for 14.2 million Kenyans. The lines are long in downtown Nairobi, Kenya's capital. People are eager to vote, some of them line up as early as 4 a.m. while polling stations only open at 6. "Why not support our president, Mwai Kibaki?" the driver continues as we head to Kibera, Kenya's most notorious slum. Roughly half a million people live here in deep poverty and they want only one thing: change. It is an Odinga stronghold, and the lines of voters here are even longer than in the city. We drive past a queue of at least three kilometers, the men standing very close together. The women have already voted. All cars entering Kibera are checked by angry-looking youths. They fear the elections will be rigged, so they check all trunks to see if they contain any government propaganda or ballots already marked in favor of Kibaki. Despite the tension, the day in Kibera ends without major trouble and the rest of the country remains calm. This is in quite a contrast with the election campaign, which was rocked by violence in which an estimated 70 people lost their lives in the six months before election day. Optimistic officials of the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) hoped to announce the results one day after the balloting but the announcement is constantly delayed. It is not until Friday, the day after the elections, that the first results start coming in. They show huge differences according to region. Voting in Kenya is mostly along ethnic lines. The president, a member of the Kikuyu tribe (the largest at 22% of the population) is almost assured of all Kikuyu votes, while Odinga is a Luo, a tribe that makes up 13% of Kenyans. One of the polling stations in central Kenya gives 96% to President Kibaki, while in a polling station in western Nyanza 100% of the voters chose Odinga. The extreme differences in support for the candidates in different parts of the country make it hard to predict a winner. But Odinga, who had a slight lead in most opinion polls in the months before the elections, seems to be the frontrunner. On Saturday morning, Kenya awakes to the news that Odinga has a lead of 900,000 votes over Kibaki, giving his supporters cause to celebrate. Meanwhile, in the parliamentary elections which were held simultaneously, many of Kibaki's close allies and ministers are losing their seats in parliament. But in the morning the tide seems to turn. Most of the votes in central Kenya are not yet counted, and it is exactly there where the president is expected to win the most votes. ECK Chairman Samuel Kivuitu addresses the nation, announcing that Odinga's lead has shrunk to only 400,000. The tension rises in Nakuru, where I am on a stopover heading toward the west of the country, Odinga's home area. Right after Kivuitu's announcement, riots break out in different parts of the country, making it almost impossible to travel any further. Demonstrators, looters and unemployed youth light bonfires in the streets and attack Kikuyu tribesmen indiscriminately. My fellow travelers and I cannot proceed any further out of fear of being attacked. The driver heads for the safety of a police compound, while the country slowly degenerates into violence. Odinga's supporters, Luo people on the border with Uganda but also in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, take to the streets, setting cars and tires on fire and looting shops. We hear the first reports of tribal killings. Kivuitu complains he cannot reach officials from certain polling stations around the country. "Their phones are switched off." By Saturday evening, as the travelers and I head back to Nairobi under police protection, the ECK declares that Odinga's lead has shrunk to 38,000 votes, increasing the violence. Sunday, December 30, will become the day of truth for Kenya. I join the gathered reporters at the ECK's media center, where the final results will be announced. Excitement rises as Odinga enters the press center, claiming irregularities between votes "on the ground" and the results announced by Kivuitu. "The political situation is almost at a boiling point," he warns the gathered journalists. The city center is calm this Sunday, but tension is building up. Some hours after Odinga addresses the media for the first time that day, Kivuitu begins his press conference to announce the final results. While the entire nation, and international viewers, can watch live on TV, Kivuitu is chased from his own press conference by Odinga supporters calling the electoral commission chairman a liar. At around 5 p.m. ECK officials flee to their offices, protected by the many soldiers who are hastily called in to guard them. Odinga returns to the steps of the media center to claim victory in the elections before speeding off in a convoy of cars. He leaves the country confused as to who exactly holds power. Just minutes later, that question is answered. The army orders the hundreds of journalists who witnessed the turmoil to leave the media center. Minutes after the press is chased out, Kivuitu appears on national television and declares Kibaki the winner by a 200,000-vote margin. The reaction on the streets is as expected - huge battles between the massive force of riot police and angry voters break out, while ethnic killings continue. Within half an hour of the announcement, Mwai Kibaki is sworn in for a second five-year term as Kenya's president. We follow the outbreak of the riots from the hotel roof and live on TV, until at around 8 p.m. the national media are banned from any further live coverage. I take the next plane back to Uganda, where I am based.